The word "gifted" is so often attributed to writers that it has almost lost its luster, becoming in some cases merely a synonym for "good." Yet, at the risk of adding to the pile, there is no better word to describe Joshua Ferris (author of Then We Came to the End) whose second novel, The Unnamed, is an extraordinary piece of work.
The deceptively simple plot concerns Tim Farnsworth, a successful partner in a law firm, who lives in New York City with his devoted wife, Jane, and teenage daughter, Becka. Tim loves his job, his family and his life, but as the novel opens he contemplates what it will mean to lose everything. The reason for this is the return of a mysterious--unnamed--disease that causes him to start walking and keep walking until he collapses from exhaustion. Although this sounds like a contrived device, Tim's affliction reads as completely authentic. Tim and Jane (who is in remission from cancer) have made the rounds of physical and mental health specialists but have come up short every time. Nobody can explain or diagnose Tim's illness and there is nothing he or Jane can do to keep him from walking miles upon miles through dangerous neighborhoods in treacherous weather. Unable to stop him, Jane tries to at least protect her husband; she gives him a backpack full of gear and a GPS so that she will know where to pick him up when his body gives out (often in the middle of the night). Inevitably Tim walks himself out of his job, his health suffers, and his relationships with Jane (who becomes an alcoholic) and Becka deteriorate, despite the sacrifices they all make for each other. But when Tim's illness goes into a sudden remission, he and Jane are able to rebuild their lives and their marriage, taking nothing for granted and finding pleasure in each other. Then one day, an agonized Tim calls Jane and tells her, "It's back."
There are many ways to read Tim's disease; as an allegory of social dysfunction or, more obviously, addiction, but Ferris never sacrifices story in the service of theme. His striking originality (a hallmark of his first novel) and stunning language allow great depth of feeling from a completely literal read. That feeling, however, cannot be classified as an optimistic one. A meditation on love, selfishness and the human condition, The Unnamed is a beautifully told, profoundly sad tale that resonates long after the last page is turned.--Debra Ginsberg
Shelf Talker: A beautiful, sad and strikingly original story of an ordinary man with an extraordinary affliction from the wildly talented author of Then We Came to the End.